Return to the River Roding

It was hard to believe that it had been over 7 months since my last stroll along the River Roding, when I had left this beguiling watercourse at Roding Valley after walking up from Redbridge Station one warm July morning.

River Roding

I decided to pick up where I’d left off and found the river bank where I’d sat down and felt like Huckleberry Finn. Where lush green undergrowth burst from the bank today was muddy brown and spindly bare. It was a beautiful clear late February day, great walking weather.

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It’s crazy in a way that I’m walking this short river in sections given that it runs a mere 11 miles from Dunmow in Essex before spilling into the Thames at Barking Creek, but there it is, and I shall now endeavour to divide my walks along its course across the 4 seasons. This particular river ramble involved two significant diversions, one through the backstreets of Buckhurst Hill and another through an industrial estate at Debden. It was a detour that led to an interesting encounter at one of Britain’s most sensitive buildings – but you’ll need to watch the video above to get that story.

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Along the River Deben to Sutton Hoo

The day before I headed into Rendlesham Forest on the UFO trail we took a family walk along the River Deben at Woodbridge aiming for the site of the famous Anglo-Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo.

The wind was so intense half the family bailed before we reached Wilford Bridge, but nothing was going to stop my youngest son completing a journey we’d been planning for years.

 

Along the Silt Road from Eden

Oxford Street Wycombe

Wycombe on a wet half-term Monday. I’m here for a lunchtime concert at All Saints Church of music by poet and composer Ivor Gurney by Jacobine van Laar and Marisa Thornton Wood. I’ve been mildly obsessed with Gurney since I discovered his connection with the town during the Remapping High Wycombe project – not just that this fascinating overlooked cultural figure had lived and written some of his most haunting compositions in Wycombe either side of the First World War, but that he was inspired by his long walks, manic fugues from London to Gloucester and the walk I plan to recreate from Wycombe to Gloucester which he did over two days in late February 1920. I’d tentatively planned to carry out the walk on the anniversary but lack of planning and my inability to cover the 60-odd miles in two short February days meant  postponing till summer.

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I killed some time wandering familiar childhood streets, devastated by the building of the Eden Shopping Centre – a place that must win the award for most misnamed location ever, perhaps they were playing opposites day in the planning office. We’d feared this when doing our project in response to the redevelopment over 2004-05 but to see it first-hand was depressing. The once thriving High Street dead, Poundland, Iceland, charity shops. The Octagon Centre – the town’s original shopping mall now relegated to the back door of the new scheme with empty units and a few bedraggled shoppers sheltering from the rain. White Hart Street shops boarded up, vacant, the same pattern creeping like a weeping rash round Oxford Street to Frogmore. The Kebab Centre has somehow survived the retail blitz but little else. The guts totally ripped out the town by a covered mall with a particularly big Marks and Spencer, a muffin shop and bowling alley.

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In the new Waterstones I picked up a copy of a book I’d seen reviewed a while back and placed on my To Read list purely on the basis that it was the story of a man’s relationship with a stream somewhere in England. At the cashdesk I opened the cover to find that the subject of Charles Rangeley-Wilson’s Silt Road wasn’t just any stream anywhere but the river that ran through Wycombe (pretty much under the Waterstones in fact) and along the valley floor through the village where I grew up – the sacred River Wye that gave its name to the town and the road where I spent my formative years. The river that drove the mills along its course from West Wycombe to Bourne End. Near its banks was a holy well, a site of pilgrimage. Romans seeded oyster beds in its clear spring waters. I used to paddle in it as a kid and we rode inner-tubes over the weirs by the viaduct. I’ve played Poo Sticks with my children from the bridges that cross the river where it skirts the perimeter of Wooburn Park.

Gurney Concert
After Jacobine and Marisa’s haunting Gurney recital I set out along the stream in the driving rain. I’d left home in my trainers for some reason, well my boots were still caked in mud from my schlep across Gilbert’s Slade the day before and I didn’t want to wear muddy boots to the recital. Pretty soon my trainers were soaked through and several balletic slides in the mire crossing the Rye coated my feet in thick mud.

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The rain would ease up, I was sure. I’d been sent Silt Road as a gift from the book genie and a message to make this pilgrimage. By the time I reached Kingsmead the rain was coming down in thick watery rods smashing me across the head and shoulders. I remembered my Nan’s saying that Dad had told me on the phone just the other day, ‘February fills the ditch, black or white I don’t care which’. My Nan would have been chuffed to bits – the ditch was full to the brim.

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I skated across the swamp-like rugby pitches heading for shelter on the far side only to get there and discover it had been built by someone with an odd sense of humour – the sunken floor filling up with rainwater like a fish pond.
It couldn’t be any grimmer or greyer as I approached the viaduct at Loudwater – unrelenting hometime traffic kicking up plumes of water. I started to regret embarking on this river walk – it’s not as if I haven’t done it hundreds of times before. I pass into Wooburn, past the street where I grew up – Wye Road. A number 37 bus pulls up at the bus stop bound for Wycombe and the train back to London – too much to resist.

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On the turbo powered train into Marylebone I open Silt Road. What on earth compelled this award-winning nature writer to pen an entire book about a short stream running through an industrialized valley on the outskirts of High Wycombe?

The book opens under the grey M40 viaduct at Loudwater with a two-page monochrome photo, “Standing under the motorway along which the cars and trucks drummed and rushed and from which the rain spilt in a streaking line, I felt a fascinated longing for this imprisoned stream. And now I feel this stream running through me.”

Crunching across time at Tilbury

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A return to Tilbry with Dr Kate Spencer and joined by the London Waterkeeper Theo Thomas, to inspect the bizarre landscape formed by the broken cap of a historic landfill site on the Thames foreshore.

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The path ‪from Tilbury Fort hugs the exterior wall of the mothballed Tilbury Powerstation, a ghost site, inert, occupied by slumbering security guards snoozing in front of flickering CCTV monitors. Well that’s the image in my mind with Homer Simpson whizzing round on a skateboard.

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Walking over the early 20th Century landfill where it has broken through whatever soil/clay cap was holding it in is a surreal experience – stepping across a carpet of scattered broken crockery, paste jars, poison bottles, ceramic jugs, old lotions and forgotten condiments. The soil is a contaminated cocktail of chemicals and depleted metals washed through by coastal erosion and rains.

This map posted by Guy Shrubsole on Twitter shows that Tilbury is far from unique. Theo says, “There are thousands of pollution time bombs close to our rivers and estuaries, tucked away, but silently threatening their and our health.”

Guy and Kate have found further maps detailing both the landfill site at Tilbury and elsewhere around the country

Here’s the podcast of my previous trip to Tilbury with Kate Spencer, Nick Papadimitriou, and Andy Ramsay for Ventures and Adventures in Topography.

 

Walk along the Philly Brook (Fillebrook) with the Leytonstone WI

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The WI standing over the Philly Brook, Chelmsford Road, Leytonstone

Sunday morning I led the newly-formed Leytonstone Women’s Institute (WI) on a walk along the course of Leyton and Leytonstone’s buried stream The Philly Brook (or Fillebrook or indeed Fille Brook – in fact spell it however you like).

I last did this walk in almost 4 years ago to the day with Nick Papadimitriou and David Boote for an episode of Ventures and Adventures in Topography.

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Me and the WI on the course of the Philly Brook at the end of Newport Road

It was great to revisit the route in its entirety rather than my homages over the street iron in Southwest Road where the brook flows fast and loud all year round but is precariously placed on a bend in the road that seems to encourage wreckless driving.

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From The Story of Leyton and Leytonstone by W.H Weston (1921)

In the morning sunshine the brook was just visible some 20 feet down beneath the road – rushing on its way to meet the Lead Mill Stream beneath the mini-rounabout on Orient Way.

There we leant over to peer through the allotment fence to spy our precious watercourse briefly appearing above ground in a concrete culvert before disappearing once more beneath the tarmac.

Suburban Safari – Ruislip Gardens to Gerrards Cross

There is something about the far reaches of the Central Line, it appears in my mind as a far off land on the edge of the known world, which is nonsense because I grew up in the provinces beyond – just down the A40 in Bucks. Either way it lurks there pinged up on the dot matrix display on the platform teasing me, urging me to abscond.

So abscond I did, alighting after about an hour at Ruislip Gardens. It had been bucketing down when I’d left Leytonstone and the sky was still smeared in thick grey clouds when I’d changed at North Acton. But crossing the road to the Yeading Brook at Ruislip Gardens the sun broke out and beckoned me down the tree lined path.

Skirting Northolt Aerodrome on the far side of the Yeading Brook, I crossed a meadow where someone was camped out living in the trees and I momentarily saw it as a kind of idyllic life. I’ve noticed this a few times on walks on open ground around the city, make-shift homes erected beneath the trees, clothes hung on hangers from branches, peculiar domestic touches for such a rustic setting.

So glad to be out in the city fringe I strode across a wide open meadow only to find myself angle deep in water, unaware I was in the middle of Ickenham Marsh where a canal feeder for the Grand Union trundles beside the Yeading Brook. There were common rights of pasture on the marshes and cattle were still grazed here in the early 1960s. There wasn’t so much as a dog when I sloshed through.

I go round in circles a lot when I walk – not helped by following a meandering brook that has a canal feeder then passes under the A40 and when I follow a footpath into a mire of suburban streets that only has one road in and out. However I was entertained by a brick Tardis disguised as an electricity substation and a row of modernist semi-detached houses that looked as if they’d been air-dropped from Los Angeles.

Somehow I found my way to this majestic spot where the River Pinn passes along a brick culvert beneath the Uxbridge bound tube line. The Pinn, although a modest watercourse running from Pinner to Yiewsley must surely be one of the most beautiful London rivers. I don’t understand aesthetics well enough to be able to back that up – but I crossed it 3 times on this walk and it made me stop dead in my tracks on each occasion. Sights like this deserve a double page spread in National Geographic.

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The 100 foot elevation of Uxbridge Common offers a panoramic view of the London skyline from the Shard on the right to the Post Office Tower to the left and I’m guessing Euston Tower behind it. The Common once stretched for hundreds of acres, 4 miles in circumference till 19th Century enclosures reduced it to its current 15 acre plot.

There was a point when I thought I’d get no further west than Uxbridge. It was 5.30 when the suburbs throb to a different rhythm – out here that’s home time. It took me half-an-hour to find a way out of the traffic vortex whipped up by the Uxbridge Roundabout, back I forth I roamed with my life in my hands before I found a way off Harefield Road to the banks of Fray’s River.

Then followed a series of beautiful clear watercourses – Fray’s River, Shire Ditch, The Grand Union Canal and the Colne. I seemed to be forever crossing bridges, zigg-zagging along riverbanks to find crossings – I counted at least 6 bridges before I reached Denham.

I hadn’t seen anywhere to buy food along the way – not even a kiosk at Ruislip Gardens. I scoffed a fistful of sweet ripe blackberries marinated in exhaust fumes in an overgrown footpath long ago abandoned beside the A40. That would have to do for a while.

I’d roughly set my course for Denham where I followed the River Misbourne to this abandoned football pitch with knee high grasses and an old brazier for beacon fires although there were so many heretics out in the Chilterns you’re never too sure whether they had a dual purpose.

I never thought I’d get so excited by the words Wild Bean Cafe but I nearly leapt for joy when as I approached it across the forecourt of the BP garage on the A40. They had no samosas and you had to buy a 4-pack of Stella and not just a single can so I settled for a chicken and bacon sandwich, cappuccino and a doughnut.

The overdose of calories consumed in a neat brick bus shelter pushed me over one last field in the setting sun just after 8. I emerged back on the road in the gloom for the slow trudge into Gerrards Cross. I scoured Tesco for a souvenir but ended up with a copy of Private Eye which I took to a sofa in The Elthorpe Hotel with a pint of ale before the 10 o’clock train into Marylebone.